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2-D Design Portfolio: Expanded Contour Self-Portrait

by David Welch
Albuquerque Academy
Albuquerque, New Mexico

A Dialogue Between Line and an Added Design Element

  • The student will gain awareness of how master artists have expanded upon the contour drawing.
  • The student will develop a contour line drawing into a more complex visual statement.
  • The student will become more aware of asymmetrical balance issues by creating a composition in which line is balanced against other elements (color, texture, pattern).
This assignment assumes that the student has previous experience in contour drawing. An appropriate prerequisite assignment would be to have the student do three contour self-portraits (size 18 by 24 inches), one in a dry medium, one in a wet medium, and one expressive or distorted in the student's choice of medium. These could be done as homework or in class. I assign them as homework, as one of the first assignments of the year. Students should be encouraged to consider interesting poses, composition, and clothing.

Through a slide presentation (use books if slides are not available), students become familiar with the drawings of Egon Schiele, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and David Hockney. Each artist, in his own way, uses added elements to embellish and develop his contour figure drawings into more complete, expressive statements. Schiele adds to the agitation of his line by adding angular brushstrokes in the background and draws attention to expressive hands and face by adding color. Toulouse-Lautrec, particularly in his lithographs, plays strong, lyrical line against bold areas of flat color. Hockney is a master of economy and contrast. He renders part of the figure in color, omitting the rest or suggesting it with a few lines, leaving the viewer to complete the negative space. Hockney also combines observed information with cartooned or abstracted shorthand information, leaving the viewer to reconcile the two. The teacher begins by describing the expressive and compositional aspects of one or two of the drawings, then actively engages the students in analyzing the images.

Suggested Images for Reference
Egon Schiele
  • Standing Girl in Plaid Garment, 1910, watercolor and charcoal
  • Portrait of a Gentleman, 1910, watercolor and charcoal
  • Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, 1913, gouache, watercolor, and pencil
  • Self-Portrait in Lavender Shirt and Dark Suit, Standing, 1914, gouache, watercolor, and pencil
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
  • Jane Avril, 1893, lithograph
  • Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891, lithograph
  • Reine de Joie par Victor Joze, 1892, lithograph
  • May Milton, 1895, lithograph
David Hockney
  • Shell Garage, Luxor, 1963, colored crayon
  • Coloured Head, 1964, colored crayon
  • Mo, 1967, colored crayon
  • Celia in a Black Dress with White Flowers, 1972, colored crayon
  • Gregory, 1978, colored crayon
Assignment Activity
Students will develop one of their own contour self-portraits beyond a line drawing by juxtaposing the linear elements of the drawing against one or more other elements such as color, pattern, texture, or collage. The added elements may serve to emphasize expressive aspects of the figure drawing, or they may create a dynamic asymmetrical balance by activating negative spaces in the drawing. The drawing should become a compositional conversation between line and the added elements. To be successful in this situation, the contour line often needs to become heavier, more forceful, or more deliberately expressive.

If students have done previous contour self-portraits, they may choose to develop one of them further for this assignment. They may also start fresh on a new drawing. I recommend that this assignment be done as homework over three to four days or a weekend. Working at home leaves students greater flexibility with issues of setting, costume, modesty, and working schedule, and it often leads to more interesting results.

Materials and Resources
Allowing an open-ended range of media makes this assignment richer and more successful.

The format is 18-by-24-inch white drawing paper, and standard media might include pencil, ink, colored pencil, watercolor, gouache, and all manner of collage material. It is advisable to use a paper that is heavy enough to tolerate liquid media. Taping the paper down on all sides can help avoid the "warping" that can result when liquid media are applied unevenly. It is recommended that students using ink have access to some large-size pen nibs for creating bold lines.

Book references:
  • Jane Kallir, Egon Schiele, Harry N. Abrams, 1994
  • Richard Thomson, Phillip Dennis Cate, and Mary Weaver Chapin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, National Gallery of Art and Art Institute of Chicago in association with Princeton University Press, 2005
  • David Hockney: A Drawing Retrospective, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., in association with Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1995
Vocabulary and Concepts
Line quality: The "personality" of line, its expressive character, for example, lyrical, agitated, nervous, graceful
Asymmetrical balance: Visual balance that occurs when dissimilar elements achieve equivalent visual weight or eye attraction
Negative space: Unoccupied areas or empty space surrounding the objects or figures in a composition

The assignment culminates with a one-period class critique that can be organized to discuss each piece individually or to address general questions such as:
  1. How is balance achieved in the drawing? Is it a comfortable balance or a tense balance?
  2. What does the portrait say about the subject? How do line quality and other elements (color, texture, pattern) create meaning or expression?
  3. Describe the mood created by the piece. What factors (of color, drawing, composition, light) contribute to creating that mood?
  4. Is there a definite focal area or multiple points of interest?
  5. How does the eye travel through the piece, and what is the character of the movement within the work?
  6. Do you see a piece in which the artist made a particularly adventurous or creative decision?
  7. If you were to do one thing to improve a chosen piece, in what direction would you push it?
Students are allowed three days (outside of class time) before the work is graded to revise or further develop their work based on suggestions from the critique.

Students receive a written, narrative, evaluative comment on their work as well as a grade. Grading criteria include:
  1. Observational skill in using contour line
  2. Development of an asymmetrical composition balancing line with other visual elements
  3. Content as evidence in the intention and expression of the work
  4. Willingness to explore and take risks
  5. Resolution and completeness of work
Examples of student work:
Florian Brozek
Amanda Chavez
Elizabeth Cannon
Gaida Chevak
Bryan Rountree

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